Forensic expert examines resistance to science

Prof tells UHLC students today’s law enforcement isn’t like on TV

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Jan. 23, 2013 – Despite clear evidence, especially since the “DNA revolution” of nearly 25 years ago, most police and prosecution agencies still resist science in performing their duties, according to a national authority on forensic science and other law enforcement matters.

“The result,” Professor David A. Harris of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law told students Tuesday at the University of Houston Law Center, “is failed evidence and miscarriage of justice.”

The perception is that “science is the handmaiden of law enforcement,” Harris said in a noon-hour lecture co-sponsored by the Association of Future Prosecutors and the Texas Innocence Network.  “Actually, no, not so much. I don’t think law enforcement and science are the partners that you would think if you look around us,” he added, citing media portrayals of crimebusters solving murders and rapes with microscopes and test tubes.

Since the first DNA exoneration in 1989, more than 300 convicted defendants have been cleared.  “Rigorous” research has identified the problems with law enforcement procedures and recommended solutions, he said.  Of those 300 wrongful convictions, 72 percent included faulty identifications from eyewitnesses, 50 percent included faulty forensic testing, and 27 percent included false confessions or statements in court.

Solutions include:

  • Use of sequential lineups, in which photos or individuals are shown to the victim one at a time, rather than simultaneously. In simultaneous lineups, victims tend to compare one possibility to the others in the lineup rather than to their memory of their attacker.
  • Use of “blind lineups” in which the officer running the lineup is not involved in the case and does not know the identity of the real suspect. This is an “easy fix,” Harris said, that eliminates subtle, unintentional signals an officer might pass along to the victim or witness.
  • Address the problem of false confessions by videotaping or recording all interrogations.
  • Eliminate lying to suspects about the results of scientific tests. Harris said that the U.S. Supreme Court allows police to lie to suspects in interrogations, but he said research shows that some particular types of lies are more likely to prompt false confessions than others. For instance, mentioning that an accomplice has implicated him or her might be enough to prompt a false confession, but lying about a blood match on the murder weapon or the presence of DNA  tells  the suspect he has no choice but to confess now and then try to fix the situation later.
  • Increase use of data-based decision making instead of human interpretation for such non-scientific processes as fingerprinting.

Given the clear documentation of the problems, and relatively simple solutions, why is there resistance?

Harris said he hears several common arguments from law enforcement, including:

  • Science from labs mean nothing to police on the streets
  • Science is not dependable; social science is meaningless
  • It would be too expensive to change
  • Critics are just accusing police of being corrupt
  • It’s all just tricks to benefit the guilty

Harris’ work reveals that these reasons hold no water.  The real reasons, he said, are cognitive, institutional, and political barriers, including:

  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Group polarization
  • Loss aversion
  • Status quo bias
  • Pressure to make arrests and win convictions
  • Police culture of “us versus them.”
  • Political ambitions of prosecutors
  • Media coverage
  • Police unions and law enforcement advocacy

Harris stressed that he is a strong supporter of law enforcement agencies and is cautiously optimistic that many more policing agencies will “recalibrate” and “adapt” in the years to come.  In an op-ed piece in the Jan. 19 edition of the Houston Chronicle, Harris wrote that the Houston Police Department is ahead of the curve in creating an independent governing body to run a forensic lab. His blue print for most of the rest of the nation includes:

  • Focus on the future and not on the past in order to keep up with and implement new procedures
  • Police and prosecutors must  lead reform  efforts
  • Find champions on the political right, not just the left
  • Attach strings to federal Department of Justice money
  • Preserve evidence as a “moral imperative” because science is constantly improving. He predicted science and methods will “radically” change for the better in the next five to 10 years.
  • He advised judges and defense lawyers to “Do your jobs!” questioning and testing everything

“I’m not here to pretend that we can have a perfect system. That would be naïve,” said the author of ‘Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science.’ “But we can do much better than we are now.

“If the system doesn’t have integrity, and people doubt it as a whole, we’re all in trouble.”


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